There’s a strange divide between superhero fiction and the rest of SFF. It may be because superheroes started out in comics. Almost all the tropes — the spandex, the tights, the rules of combat enforced by the Comics Code of the 1950s — come out of those comic book origins. As more and more superheroes hit the big screen, it hasn’t been surprising to see them in novels, some of them on the literary side of SFF (like Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, Carrie Vaughn’s “Golden Age” books), and many of them looking at how those tropes play out when you’re not in a visual medium.
So how do you classify superhero webcomics that play with the tropes in the way that those SFF novels have done? Are they fantasy or are they superhero comics, or are those lines really more fluid than the divisions warrant? Either way, three of my favorite webcomics are superhero comics and all of them look at the genre in a way that questions our assumptions about how superheroes work.
What happens when a superhero gets married to a nice, normal girl — and what kind of strengths does it require to be married to someone with a secret identity? What does it matter if you can kick butt and take names if you’re not contributing to solving the big world problems? What is it like to be an 8 year-old superhero? Keep reading and find out how three very different comics are looking at superheroes (and why you should be reading them).
First up, Love and Capes by Thom Zahler. Abby has no idea that her accountant boyfriend, Mark, is actually the Crusader–until he springs his secret on her and his disappearances (tax emergencies?) suddenly make so much more sense. But while the Crusader is often out with his best buddy Darkblade (usually discussing relationship topics in the midst of battle), the focus of the series is on the normal aspects of life. Because as much as Mark loves being the Crusader, he also loves just being Mark. And Abby, for all that she has no superpowers, comes to Mark’s rescue more than once, showing that it doesn’t always take powers greater than common sense and an ability to adapt to strange and bizarre situations to handle time traveling maniacs bent on world domination.
Most of the LNC run has actually already been printed, but Zahler is rerunning it as a webcomic–much to the delight of those who picked up an issue on Free Comic Book Day but don’t have a FLCS (friendly local comic shop). For a print comic, it runs remarkably well as a webcomic; the pacing works as a three-day-a-week strip, something that not all print comics can manage online (and some webcomics have trouble with). Overall, this is a great comic if you like usually-light-hearted fare about relationships, friendships, and the occasional threat of apocalypse.
Another light-hearted take on superheroes is Yale Stewart’s adorable (and yet occasionally heart-wrenching) JL8, a take on DC’s Justice League as elementary schoolers. Stewart does a heck of a job taking characters we already know and love and making them believable as kids–without ever really mocking the adult versions. JL8 is a cross between an homage and a parody, and it features cameos by Neil Gaiman as a bookseller who gives Clark Kent advice in matters of the heart. A fellow comic enthusiast (who originally recommended the comic to me) calls JL8 the best thing to come out of DC in years–despite not being officially affiliated with DC.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag’s Strong Female Protagonist. Just by the title, you recognize that the comic will be a critique of superhero literature–but it’s so much more than that. Allison Green, formerly Mega Girl, has given up life as a superhero to go back to school, get her B.A., and try to do something to help the world that doesn’t involve beating up bad guys. This is not because she doesn’t like fighting villains. No, it’s because she realizes that battling monsters in the streets is not actually helping anyone on the grand scale. From Allison’s perspective, the world needs heroes–but they might not need to be super.
As the comic continues, Allison’s backstory comes out, as do tales of her life as Mega Girl. In an arc that centers on Feral, a super who regenerates that Mega Girl once worked with, Allison realizes that she’s not the only one who’s decided there are better ways to improve the world than fighting. Because she can regenerate continually, Feral decides that the way she can best make an impact is to donate her organs to those in need. It’s in moments like this that Mulligan and Ostertag question what the world would be like if there really were superheroes–and look at the sacrifices those people might make to really make a difference. Donning tights and a cape looks good in the media, but saving lives doesn’t have to happen in battle. And sometimes, the consequences of battles are greater than superheroes realize.
I highly recommend all three of these strips, and hope you’ll check them out!
Do you think superhero stories qualify as fantasy? Let me know–and tell me what else I should be reading or playing–in the comments.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels Choice of Kung Fu and Showdown at Willow Creek are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels (one recently funded by Kickstarter), several short stories, and a contributor to role playing games. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.